'Hypoallergenic' And 'Fragrance-Free' Moisturizer Claims Are Often False, Study Finds : Shots - Health News People with skin conditions like eczema need moisturizers to treat their dry, cracked and reddened skin. But research suggests many moisturizers are mislabeled and can make the skin conditions worse.

'Hypoallergenic' And 'Fragrance-Free' Moisturizer Claims Are Often False

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We have news for anybody who uses a skin moisturizer. Many brands claim that their products are fragrance-free or hypoallergenic. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on a new study that found most of those claims to be false.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: For most of us buying a fragrance-free moisturizer that turns out not to be fragrance-free might be frustrating but not harmful. That's not the case for people with skin conditions, like Kathryn Walter, who has severe eczema.

KATHRYN WALTER: I'll use a moisturizer that says there are no fragrances, there are no additives, no dyes and lanolin and any kind of masking fragrance.

NEIGHMOND: And when that turns out not to be the case, she often feels it immediately.

WALTER: I will start to itch, and I have to get it off my body right away.

NEIGHMOND: For people like Walter, moisturizers aren't just for smoothing skin. They can actually treat the dry, cracked and reddened rash of skin disorders. But more often than not, Walter ends up with a product that does the opposite.

WALTER: My ankles and calves are all scratched up as we speak, and my hands.

STEVE XU: Every single day, I get questions about what moisturizer should I use, what sunscreen should I use?

NEIGHMOND: Steve Xu is a dermatologist at Northwestern University who sees lots of patients like Walter.

XU: And I found myself really struggling to provide evidence-based recommendations for my patients.

NEIGHMOND: So he decided to do a study examining the top 100 best-selling moisturizers, and what he found was pretty surprising. Forty-five percent of those labeled fragrance-free actually contained some form of fragrance. And of those labeled hypoallergenic, 83 percent contained an ingredient with the potential to cause an allergic reaction, which means...

XU: The vast majority of moisturizers that are best-sellers that are popular have some form of potential skin allergen.

NEIGHMOND: In large part, deceptive labels result from the lack of federal regulation. The FDA considers moisturizers cosmetic and barely regulates them. There are some labeling requirements, but Duke University professor of medicine Rob Califf says they are easily avoided by company claims that ingredients are trade secrets.

ROB CALIFF: Well, the cosmetics industry is highly competitive, and if someone could easily copy someone else's successful cosmetic, that would be a competitive disadvantage.

NEIGHMOND: And manufacturers aren't required to report consumer complaints. Califf, a former commissioner of the FDA, says this means the agency doesn't know the extent of the problem.

CALIFF: I don't think it's too much to ask of manufacturers that they register what they're selling so that it can be tracked.

NEIGHMOND: Congress is considering legislation that could make the industry more accountable. In the meantime, dermatologist Xu recommends a skinny skin diet.

XU: What we mean is using the least amount of products with the least amount of potentially allergenic materials or chemicals in them to reduce the risk.

NEIGHMOND: Things like Vaseline or products that have just one ingredient...

XU: The shea butters and the food oils like sunflower oil, cocoa butter.

NEIGHMOND: ...Pure and simple products that can minimize the risk of a harmful skin reaction. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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